“Am I Black Enough For You?” The Respectability of CW’s Black Lightning

Despite my greater familiarity with Marvel Comics’ superhero characters, DC Comics’ Black Lightning is one I keep returning to, having written three posts about him, one in which I put his manipulation of Black identity in conversation with Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro, and two in which I examined his interactions with the dominant culture of white superheroes as represented by the Justice League, as a way to consider both the approach to racial difference in popular culture of the 1970s and how to read his refusal to join the JLA as a  rejection of the implicit white supremacy of the superhero genre. When the Black Lightning TV show was announced and I saw the first promotional pictures of Jefferson Pierce and his superpowered family, I knew there was a strong chance I’d be writing about BL at least one more time, depending on how good (or how bad) the show turned out to be. This is that post.

CW’s Black Lightning is a rich text. That is, it has a plentitude of narrative, social, and cultural elements to examine. As such, isolating any individual aspect is not only difficult but basically guarantees that any examination of it will be reductive and incomplete. This plenitude also means that I am not going to be able cover every single character, event, or potential meaning present in the first season’s 13 episodes within the framework of even the long blog posts I tend to write here.  As such, anything not covered here does not necessarily mean that I have not thought about it (and at the end of this post I plan to list a handful of aspects of the show that might be worth digging into, either at a later date or by someone else down the line).

It is also worth noting that this richness also guarantees that such a text will be far from perfect—what show can balance every possible connotation, motivation, characterization, or event as to be perfectly in line with a straw man ideal of progressive politics? None of them. And, given the troubling history and frequent white supremacist underpinnings of the genre, a superhero show is even less likely to be in a position to get it all right all the time. But that’s okay, because I think even a text’s shortcomings can be productive for an engaged viewer/reader with a simultaneously rigorous and generous approach.

As I mentioned in that first post about the original Black Lightning, what makes the character so intriguing is his relationship to Black identity. The character manipulates it in his guises—as respectable former Olympic athlete/high school teacher and streetwise slang-talkin’ superhero—to create as much distance between them as possible through attention to the expectations and tightly held stereotypes common to both inside and outside the Black community. The visual reinforcement of this idea—the afro-wig attached to his domino mask—was dropped by the time the character reappeared in the 90s (though there is a version in the re-imagining of his origin in 2009’s Black Lightning: Year One in the form of a twist out). Nevertheless, even when poorly written by white writers less engaged with social implications of this character’s identity play, such play has remained a crucial part of defining Black Lightning through his language and demeanor. This is not only also present in the live-action version of the character, but the show’s strength is when it allows both performances to exist in an ongoing tension that provides the audience a way to visualize the simultaneity possible between what seem like distinct points along a continuum of being that could not coexist.

The setting of Black Lightning helps establish the complex range of identities that exist within a demographic often referred to as a singular identity. Unlike the comics, where “Suicide Slum”—an area of Metropolis both the police and Superman seem to ignore­­—is Black Lightning’s stomping grounds, the CW’s Black Lightning TV show takes place in the Black middle and working-class town of Freeland, where the Pierce family is long established. Pierce is the principal at Garfield High School, his wife Lynn, a neuroscientist, his eldest daughter Anissa, an activist and med student (who ends up adopting the superheroic identity Thunder), and Jennifer, the youngest daughter, is still in high school. The show eschews an origin story for the sake of a rebirth. After a nine-year break from being Black Lightning, Jefferson Pierce is forced by circumstances to once again don the mantle of his alternate identity to fight against rampant crime and corruption that has accompanied the rise of a gang called “The 100” and the return of his old nemesis, Tobias Whale.

Whale, like nearly every single other criminal we see on the superhero show, is Black, but he is also albino. This splits the difference between the original version, who was just a misshapen bone-white lump of a man that evoked Moby Dick, and the version from the Year One comic book series, who is a light skinned Black man. Early on the show seems dedicated to the trope of “black-on-black” crime (even if it does not ever use that term explicitly). This is something that is almost impossible to ignore in the first episode, especially in the context of what an audience has been primed to expect when it comes to depictions of Black communities: the endemic criminality it suggests is essential to the Black experience. We are introduced to the setting and the characters against the backdrop of a protest turned violent, except unlike the real world where protests often turn violent because of police actions, this one turned violent because gang members attacked the protestors. In other words, it demonstrates even civil disobedience as a source of “black-on-black crime” that the police are struggling against. Sans the context of the rest of the first season, it definitely feels like it is going to recapitulate and work to reify the worst narratives of respectability politics and expectations divorced from the realities of history and immediate social context of being Black in America.

As the season develops, however, and we see Jefferson Pierce come to accept once again the necessity of his Black Lightning persona, the role of the show’s criminal underworld starts to fall into perspective. While the notion of afro-futurism has been on the minds of a lot of people since the February release of Black Panther, the CW’s Black Lightning takes place not in an afro-futurist space but a kind of adjacent afro-present. While Freeland is never explicitly called “a Black town,” the optics of its depiction make it exactly that. The teachers are Black, the students are Black, their parents are Black, the administration is Black, doctors and reporters are Black. The one area where this afro-reality is not maintained, however, is in the depictions of the police. Yes, there are Black police officers—including the important figure of Detective Billy Henderson, who is friends with Pierce in his civilian identity, but only a grudging ally of Black Lightning, because he disapproves of vigilantism—but on the show the majority of both uniformed and plainclothes officers are white. This is an important distinction, because while Black Lightning is providing a space to depict a diversity of Black people, it maintains the reality of the primary form of engagement white people have with urban communities of color is one overwhelmingly shaped by authoritarian institutions. In other words, the show’s willingness to have Freeland’s primary point of contact with white America be the police shifts the point of view from what brings the police to those communities (the criminalization of blackness) to what the police are actually doing in a community that desperately needs help. As such, it highlights the ineffectual, disproportionate, and misguided approaches of a police force colored by individual prejudice, systemic racism, and ubiquitous corruption.

Eventually, viewers and characters discover that the gang violence and drug traffic in the community has been possible with the support of government agencies representing the hegemonic framework of white power in America. The lens through which we are used to being shown places like Chicago’s southside (and Freeland is in some ways an analog for the place of Chicago gun violence in American racial discourse) is challenged through recourse of the more simplified and direct connections between the economic and racial inequities of government social policy made possible by the superhero genre.

The focus of Black Lightning does not exist through the white gaze (and the fact that the show creators and runners, Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil, are Black helps that), but on a conflict of views and people within a fictionalized Black community that nevertheless must grapple with social problems shaped by the marginalized position of Black people in America overall. In other words, while the show cannot remove the racialized context of its depictions of crime, policing, and protest in terms of where the show itself exists in our culture, it provides a place to view stories play out relatively free of monolithic and reductive perspectives on race.

This, of course, also means that respectability politics are well-represented in the show as a perspective not uncommon within the Black community as a mode of maintaining myths of self-discipline and normative behavior as if they were divorced from the Sauronic-eye of the white gaze. In fact, that is what makes Black Lightning/Jefferson Pierce so interesting. He represents the split between Black respectability and radical politics in a singular figure. His identity-play swings wildly between these poles in ways that are much more representative of a contradictory knot of lived experience and free of problematic stereotypes that either position would reinforce on their own. As the season progresses, BL’s internal conflict parallels the conflict in his community. His attachment to the trappings of middle-class life, wife, family, respected place as the head of a community institution mitigates the radical possibilities that emerge from what his electrical powers make available to him. In other words, for all his power, both of the superheroic and social kinds, he remains severely limited in his ability to make real change, as he is not free of the consequences of being Black in America.

Anissa Pierce is Thunder.

Simultaneously, however, his eldest daughter Anissa’s discovery of her own powers, her staunch activism, and her Black lesbian identity represents other radical possibilities that eschew the centering of heteropatriarchal domesticity. In the white hegemony of American culture, Black love is radical. In a heteropatriarchal world queer love is radical. So Black queer love? It puts the “super” in superhero by challenging the very “traditional values” superheroes have often been used to support. When we are introduced to Anissa, her father is picking her up from being arrested at the protest “turned violent” and the argument that follows in the car on the way to a fundraising event for Garfield High is peppered with quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer. From the outset, the show seems to do its best to challenge its every representation of the moderate perspective on race and protest by following up with a scene that questions those priorities. Part of what makes Pierce angry at his daughter is that she chose to protest “and get herself arrested” on the same night as the fundraiser to benefit Black school children. Anissa claims she had “no choice” from a moral perspective but to take part in the protest, but Pierce insists “you always have a choice.” The intergenerational conflict is clear from the beginning.

Later, Anissa uncowed by her father’s admonishment, takes part in protesting a confederate monument in town by spraying it with paint-filled super-soakers. Like many parents in a similar position, Pierce admires his daughter’s activism but worries for her safety and insists on her obeying the rules for challenging injustice. The show gets a little preachy when he opines that the super-soakers Anissa and the others used to vandalize the statue were “close enough to real guns” for the cops when seen in the hands of Black people, but preachy isn’t necessarily unrealistic given how dangerous it can be out there for black folk and other PoC when having run-ins with the police for a lot less than what Anissa and her friends do. And yet, one of her first acts as a superhero (in episode six) is to destroy the confederate statue. Anissa moves to immediately put her powers to use to challenge white supremacy and defy her father. cutting through the intergenerational debate that rages between her and her father’s “respectable” identity.

As Thunder, Anissa is able to act with impunity and destroy the statue without fear of reprisal, but after discovering each other’s secret identities, Pierce once again admonishes his daughter. He does not approve of her destroying the statue and, despite her frustration with the delay in civic action, she apologizes for having done it and acquiesces that “it was a mistake.” Later (in episode eight), when running through a holographic battle simulator for training, Anissa “fails” because she uses her powers on a white guy in a Confederate flag t-shirt. Pierce admonishes her some more, saying “You looked and you assumed he was a threat, so you didn’t actually see that he wasn’t.…even if we don’t appreciate [his] worldview.” It is these moments that cause me to yell at the screen, but as frustrating as her acquiescing to this “respectable” route might make a viewer like me who wants unapologetic radical politics, as a depiction of an interpersonal exchange fraught with generational authority and gender dynamics, it works. As a viewer, I don’t have to agree with Pierce’s take, and given the fact that he doesn’t necessarily always agree with himself and Anissa’s point of view sometimes wins out, it is the way the show asks us to reconsider and rehearse our arguments in those moments that makes it valuable. Plus, in our modern day way of sharing ideas through images, Thunder pulverizing a confederate statue is a strong statement we can share.

Furthermore, despite the frequently sharp distinction between Jefferson Pierce and Black Lightning, occasional slippage makes for more nuanced and complex moments. As an experienced superhero who until recently chose retirement over the demands and dangers of the superhero life, he understands what is at stake better than Anissa/Thunder does. He is conscious of a gaze both from within and without community that frames their every action. The very circumstances that led to his retirement speak to the fact that even superheroes cannot act with impunity when they are Black—for example, in the first episode we see a wanted poster for Black Lightning at the police station. They remain vulnerable to institutions and existing power structures. The Black Lightning identity allows Jefferson Pierce the space to act in ways that his principal identity cannot because of the “respectability” required of it. This also serves as a strategy for protecting his identities. Thunder/Anissa has almost no distinction between her personas, which troubles Pierce’s instincts as a father and a superhero. However, this also calls into questions the degree to which such a separation is ethical, when even possible.

This back and forth is not static. Later it is Thunder’s approach that ends up saving her father’s life when investigating super-weapons that emulate BL’s powers (and are being used to frame him). Afterwards, Pierce comes to an important realization; in trying to change his daughter he was risking losing the aspects of her approach that are valuable, “her understanding of people, her desire to protect.” Before that moment, he saw her only as his daughter who needed protecting, a student or sidekick, but Black Lightning is woke enough—at least positionally—to shift his ethical framework. Rather than putting his perception of his family’s needs above all others, he is able to see that considering his daughter’s actual needs and the community’s needs first might be the most moral choice. Best of all, in the scene when he is explaining this to his wife, he is wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with a Black panther and the words, “People’s Free Food Program,” evoking not only the community work of the Black Panther party in the 1960s, but the degree to which their good faith efforts were framed as to make them representative of public enemy #1 in the eyes of white America.

This might be my favorite moment in the show.

This moral compartmentalization on Black Lightning’s part is also notable at other points in the first season, as when we see him blowing up cop cars in anger or yelling at cops for pulling guns on a drugged-out teen but also arguing against a protest challenging the influence of the local gang, the 100, in another. What unites these seemingly disparate opinions is a love for black people, a desire to protect them and look out for them. His respect for his community is only undermined by his patronizing attitude, which is a reasonable and believable flaw in a character used to being a leader, and let’s be honest, used to his male privilege.

And yet, even in his respectable role as principal of Garfield High, where his bootstrap mantras and black students uniformed in navy blue verge on cliché, Pierce’s priorities revolve around his community in a way that depicts his holistic view of who matters in that community. He falls thankfully short of a “pull up your pants” type. Instead, he has a relationship with the criminal element of his community, garnering enough respect to keep the gang activity and drugs out of his school, and to still be called “Mr. Pierce” by those former students that he was unable to steer towards the straight and narrow. In these interactions, we see him approach this world without judgment and maintaining his dignity, while recognizing their humanity and keeping hope alive for reformation and knowing well enough to not say so. He learns the limits of this respect, however, when the return of Tobias Whale leads to an increased push of criminal activity and the arrival of a new drug, Greenlight.

Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III as Tobias Whale.

Tobias Whale is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Black Lightning TV show, not the least of reasons being that the actor who plays him—Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III—does a fantastic job, commanding the screen in every scene in which he appears. As I mentioned above, this incarnation of Whale has albinism, and rather than fat, he is broad shouldered strong man, followed around by a Twiggy-like brunette white henchwoman with guns, named Syonide. He is particularly notable for his internalized racism, taking the satirical clueless obsequiousness of an  Uncle Ruckus type character, and transforming it into a toxic hatred for all things Black, weaponized into a strategy for self-aggrandizement at the cost of his community. Whale’s albinism reinforces this dedication to pathological whiteness through a physical and visual manifestation, but of course, the fact that a disability is being used to cement that aspect of his identity is more than troubling. It recapitulates the tendency for albino people to be cast as villains and freaks (when cast at all) in popular culture. At one point (episode 6), Black Lightning even uses the fact of Whale’s albinism as a way to track him down through the limited number of doctors in town that specialize in dealing with albino patients. Whale’s self-hatred and internalized racism is meant (I think) to shed a critical light on crime in the Black community, the self-destructive forces that drive it and that it perpetuates, except it also serves to reinforce the worst divisional politics within that community, those built on the hierarchies of white supremacy. In other words, as Whale gives voice to the idea that Black people are only holding themselves back and that the Black culture’s influence on white America is the toxic one—“Nowadays, white boys are just as lazy and shiftless as the brothers”—rather than clearly depict him as misguided, he is depicted as confident, smart, and ambitious. Nearly everyone working for him, (all Black, save for Synonide) are nameless violent thugs, who range from comically clueless to capriciously cruel, serving as evidence for Whale’s negative view of his own people.

Still, I find it preferable to have this Black space that allows for a range of representations of Black people and experiences than for the milquetoast approach of superhero comics of the 70s and 80s, when so often efforts to not depict minorities as criminals were no less problematic. As I have written about before about both films and comics, even when criminals are not depicted as explicitly Black, narratives of urban violence nevertheless encode blackness through a metaphorical othering that stands in for widespread racist assumptions that once upon a time drove white flight and now drive the “bettering” narratives of gentrification. It becomes a kind of representation through the absence marked by the polity of white liberal platitudes that would have us think that erasure equals justice.

The CW’s Black Lightning makes ample use of news and “man-on-the-street” reportage to give a sense of different attitudes towards Black Lightning.

If for no other reason, CW’s Black Lightning is great because it refuses to be a tool of that erasure and allows for those multitude of voices nearly every episode. One way it accomplishes this is through the inclusion of “man-on-the-street” local newscasts of (mostly Black) people reacting in different ways to the violent events in Freeland and the actions of Black Lightning and the police furthers the sense of diversity of opinions within the community, while continuing to depict a sense of their shared interests.

When Black Lightning is framed for the death of corrupt community leader Lady Eve (depicted by Jill Scott showing her acting chops), the people interviewed display outrage and question Black Lightning’s methods. While we as the audience know her as the real leader of the 100, Freeland knows her as a respected member of their community who used her influence to look out for people. Later, when Jefferson Pierce is framed by corrupt cops for selling/possessing drugs (when the bad guys think they’ve figured out that he is Black Lightning), the local news depicts the racial divide in attitudes to the revelation, with Black people who know of his role in the community expressing skepticism, while a lone white woman expresses outrage at his arrogance and acting as if the accusations confirm what she already felt to be true.

It is worth noting that the scenes involving the arrest of Jefferson Pierce—the searching of his car, the police coming to take him out of his school in cuffs in front of all of his students, his humiliation at being strip-searched at the station—are among the most powerful of the whole season and serve to depict the inefficacy of respectability as a shield against the white gaze and institutional racism. Despite Pierce’s best efforts to model a relation to the world that is positive and optimistic and dignified for his students, the world does not have that relation to him and that is an important lesson, too.

And there, I think is the aspect of the show that is most interesting to me and that I am curious to see how it will evolve in the already announced second season, how the show represents a more radical understanding of the range of Black life and the degree to which white supremacy shapes that life in America within the framework of a mainstream network show. The show seems to be trying to carefully navigate the very obstacles it tries to explore in the show through the superhero milieu’s genre flexibility. It provides a mediated message that appears to embrace the problematic and contradictory expectations the white gaze has for Black America in an effort to undermine it; it just doesn’t always succeed.

But that’s okay, as I mentioned above, Black Lightning can’t be perfect, and we don’t need a show to be perfect in order for it to be an entertaining and productive engagement with these various social issues. We just need it to provide both the pleasurable affect from imagining ourselves in those empowered roles and new opportunities to discuss the realities it explores in the context of its superhero world. There is so much in Black Lightning that every episode is a delight of questions and things to consider and reconsider, and I laud it for that.

As I mentioned at the outset, there is too much present in CW’s Black Lightning to cover in a single blog post, so I want to end on a handful of the show’s elements worth spending more time thinking about:

Angsty Jennifer Pierce.

  • The trials of BL’s youngest daughter, Jennifer—not only discovering that she is a “freak” with powers but dealing with internet bullying in the form of attacks on her Black authenticity by other girls in her school, and dealing with her track star boyfriend’s paralysis, embitterment, and eventually joining up with Tobias Whale—is simultaneously heartbreaking and annoying (like most teenagers’ lives). When comforted about the harmful bullying she receives about her identity (being called “Becky”), her father explains, “No one is an expert in what Black is because Black is everything under the sun.” Allowing for a large and inclusive Black world that accepts difference within it, not just between it and whiteness.
  • I also love that Jennifer acts like a real person, thrown for a loop by the revelations about herself and her family, and acting scared when they come under attack. Overall, the acting on Black Lightning is great, made notable by the actors’ ability to deliver hokey lines that range from superhero pseudo-scientific babble to didactic talks about race with a naturalness that makes it work. The only exception to this is the actor who plays Peter Giambi (BL’s white mentor) whose weakness is all the more apparent surrounded by such great people. I am not that fond of the character either.
  • The obvious code-switching on display when Black Lightning talks to Detective Henderson in that identity as opposed to the careful and “proper” way he speaks as Principal Pierce is a delightfully clever use of identity play.
  • CW’s Black Lightning remains in its own insular setting for now. While there were references to the existence of other superheroes/metahumans in the world, the only one mentioned by name is Vixen (which suggests that the show takes place in the Arrowverse but thank god there have been no crossovers yet—though I wouldn’t mind a cameo by Kid Flash).
  • Green Lantern / Green Arrow ham-handedly tackled social issues in the early 1970s.

    The show does a great job of incorporating real world events and ideas—from the real-life tragedy of the events of Charlottesville to the inclusion of common urban legends and conspiracy theories—into its narrative of Black life. The white nationalist demonstration and counter-protests that led to the death of Heather Heyer (something explicitly alluded to via a newcast embedded in the narrative that describes similar results in Freeland), gives the show a sense of immediacy and resounds with the questions of social justice that exist in superhero traditions like DC’s early 1970s Green Lantern/Green Arrow. In addition, when the show reveals that Freeland was used as a site for experimenting with a vaccine meant to make people “docile,” I could not help but remember Prince on Tavis Smiley talking about how chemtrails caused violence in Black communities. The well-placed distrust of government by many Black Americans can lead to belief in conspiracies that are far-fetched, but in the superhero world, such claims can be made to have more basis in reality. Then again, as one man on the street interview reminds us in the final episode of the season when the experimentation is made public through the efforts of Black Lightning and Thunder, the government experimenting on and/or targeting Black communities for destruction is nothing new. “It is their M.O.,” he says, citing the crack infusion into Black neighborhoods in the 80s, and alluding to events like the Tuskegee experiments by the U.S. Public Health Service on Black men between 1932 and 1972. The vaccine ended up killing many children, but it also led to the seeding of the potential for superpowers among those who survived, which then led to the kidnapping of Black youth by the government for more experiments in an effort to weaponize them.

  • The head of the shady government operation experimenting on Black people—Martin Proctor, one of the few white characters—is casually dismissive and disdainful of Black people and their community. He hates the neighborhood. “The only thing the people in this neighborhood are good for is experimentation. They should be happy we’re here.” It might be easy to dismiss him as a cartoon, but his clear disdain that falls just short of explicit racist language echoes the rhetoric of the GOP. He even explains that dehumanizing and weaponizing the kidnapped Black youth will “Make America Great Again.”

  • The use of music on the show is fantastic, including some deep cuts of amazing Black popular music. The final episode of the season has one of my favorite examples, the use of the O’Jays’ “Stairway to Heaven” in a dream sequence in which Jefferson Pierce is visited by the spirit of his dead father, killed by Tobias Whale at the behest of the shady government agency. The use of Billy Pauls’ “Am I Black Enough For You?” in the episode two might be even better and an early sign of the show’s potential. The song resonates with the themes of identity in the show when Black Lightning goes to confront Whale’s henchman, Lala. Earlier in the episode, Lala had made a point of reminding Pierce of the limits of his juice in the community and publicly humiliating the school principal.

There is a lot more I have no space to get into, and I have focused here mostly on the aspects with promise and ignored the many weaknesses. There were times in the 13-episode first season where the show seemed to flail and to not be sure what to do to follow up on aspects it introduced. Tobias Whale’s sister shows up with a sharp attitude and seemingly the only person he respects, but ends up killed before she does anything interesting, just serving as a reason to further motivate the villain. The character of Lala is nearly as interesting a villain as Whale, perhaps more so when he is resurrected from the dead, haunted by the spirits of people he killed, but he too is killed without much coming from the pathos of his predicament. Ultimately, he is a red herring and that is shame (though already resurrected once, I guess there is a chance he can be resurrected again next season…here’s hoping). The show seems unwilling or unable to explicitly explore the racial elements of police corruption in Freeland and how that might shape Detective Henderson’s attempts to combat it and reveal the truth of what is going on. Overall, the show’s plot scrambles to make some sort of sense of the ongoing conspiracy and bring the Pierce family back to a place of relative safety and a new status quo by the end. The overall handling and pacing of the plot moving towards a conclusion is probably the most glaring weakness (though the actual fight choreography is uneven as well), but good endings are hard and tend to be overvalued.

Still, don’t let my ending on these shortcomings skew your perspective on the show. Instead, consider how even these limits provide space for them to be explored in the future.

2 thoughts on ““Am I Black Enough For You?” The Respectability of CW’s Black Lightning

  1. Pingback: “Am I Black Enough For You?” The Respectability of CW’s Black Lightning – Geeking Out about It

  2. Pingback: “Say It Loud!” Tyroc and the Trajectory of the Black Superhero (part 2) | The Middle Spaces

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